In sobriety, we have to learn to replace our “old” pastimes with new ones. People, places, and things, right? Well, I can’t think of a more terrifying thing to tell a newbie who’s trying to transition from living that fast, fabulous nightlife than “Hey, you should take up knitting!”
The thing is, knitting is no longer just for old ladies. There is a huge surge in millennial knitters taking up the craft and, not only that, but it’s replacing gay bars for NYC’s LGBTQIA+ community. When I first learned to knit in a class for young people in sobriety, I did so alongside big dudes with tattoos who were fresh out of rehab. So let’s just squash that stereotype right now.
When I first learned to knit in a class for young people in sobriety, I did so alongside big dudes with tattoos who were fresh out of rehab.
That wasn’t my first time knitting, back when I really learned to knit in January of 2018; I had tried when I was 14 years old, half a lifetime before that, while visiting my aunt in Vermont. Back then, when I got home and made a mistake, there was no YouTube or Facebook group for help, there was just “Oh well, there goes that.” And let me tell you, when you don’t pick up a crafty hobby for the rest of your life and you fall in love with it, you hit it hard… just like you hit that bottle or that reefer.
These days, I literally buy furniture for my yarn despite living in a small apartment. I order yarn and more yarn and go “Oh, fuck” when I hit complete order. I have spreadsheets upon spreadsheets and desktop folders with my big plans for them, all sorts of scarves and shawls and projects for my speckled, glittery, neon, metallic, fabulous fibers. I do all of my summer knitting projects at once and have like one day to wear them all. On the same day, at the same time. I finish and I wrap it around my dog that I somehow make look like a Vogue model, give him treats, and wear it maybe once. In a way, I’ve created my own brand of controlled chaos.
But here’s why: Knitting has taken me to a whole new level of Zen. Not just when I’m actually knitting, but overall. Because knitting is not only like a form of meditation and a useful form of bilateral stimulation (more on that later) but it does all sorts of amazing things for your blood pressure, anxiety levels, self-esteem, and overall outlook on life — there is nothing like unraveling hours of work when you’ve decided you don’t like how it looks or have made an irreparable mistake.
So let’s talk about its role in sobriety, specifically.
“It calms my body and mind after just a couple minutes of knitting.”
Jolene Park, a health coach and TED speaker who has been sober for nearly five years, also began knitting two years ago. She says that the positive benefits for her are the quick and immediate effects of breath regulation and “single-focused attention.”
“It calms my body and mind after just a couple minutes of knitting. It’s a meditative practice for me and it works better for me than trying to sit in traditional meditation,” she says, going on to reference Betson Corkhill’s book Knit For Health And Wellness: How To Knit A Flexible Mind And More and her research, a source that has become Park’s “go-to person for knitting and mental health studies.”
“Corkhill sees therapeutic knitting as a healthcare tool – unravels the neuroscience behind its bilateral, cross-midline, rhythmic, automatic movements and the complex combination of physiological, psychological, behavioral, social, and creative benefits experienced,” Park says. “It’s a ‘whole-person’ approach to wellbeing and health care that encourages variety, curiosity, exploration, creativity, laughter, and a lot of fun!”
As a tool in sobriety, says Park, it’s a great way to conquer boredom and find ways to relax.
“When you knit new patterns, you’re also metaphorically knitting new patterns into your nervous system. It builds patience and breaks down perfectionism,” she says. “Anything can be undone and knitted again. There are lessons and metaphors in the whole process from start to finish, unraveling the yarn and knitting it back together again. For me, I got more done, became more focused and creative with my work, and my mind became calmer and able to handle and cope with life better because I was knitting.”
Knitting is a therapeutic way to help you create new positive habits of thinking and behaving, and lead to more positive experiences.
When we stop drinking and using drugs, we have to replace those old habits with new ones — but part of recovery also means finding new, healthier ways of thinking, behaving, speaking, reacting, perceiving, and basically existing in the world. As Corkhill writes in her book, knitting is a therapeutic way to help you create new positive habits of thinking and behaving, and lead to more positive experiences.
“It helps to train your mind because your mind is occupied concentrating on what you’re doing so no negative thoughts can get through,” Corkhill writes. “Knitting can help you manage everyday life, manage change, live with fluctuations in mood, keep stress at a healthy level, occupy you during boring journeys and help you sleep better. It can literally change your mind and how you feel about yourself, your life, and the world.”
We’ve all had meditation recommended as part of our sober self-care regimen, and Corkhill notes that entering a meditative-like state appears to happen as a side effect of knitting. Interestingly, she also cites a study that knitters have reported an improvement in PTSD symptoms (raising my hand on this one too!) for even longer than a six-hour window than the Oxford University study indicates, which could be due to the bilateral movement taking place while the traumatic memory is activated; this is the very premise for EMDR trauma-targeted therapy.
“Knitting can help you manage everyday life, manage change, live with fluctuations in mood, keep stress at a healthy level, occupy you during boring journeys and help you sleep better.”
I’ve spent years practicing staying present and being patient, and when I’m armed with knitting needles and yarn, I can almost guarantee that those “wasted” hours can be used to both create something beautiful and keep me calm when forces out of my control keep me locked in my seat. I’ve also “angry knitted” until I’ve calmed down, which is probably one of the best coping mechanisms there is (just don’t snap your needles or go so fast you make a big mistake and make yourself even more upset).
Repetitive movement, Corkhill notes, raises serotonin, which can raise your mood. This is an incredibly productive self-soothing technique that is much healthier, of course, than using alcohol or drugs, especially because there’s no come-down high since you’re not altered in a way that’s out of control — you’re actually more grounded in reality, and that’s a comfortable place to be.
It can also make us feel like we have a purpose: When we think about “acts of service” and doing good for others as part of our recovery, we now have new options like knitting socks for soldiers, chemo hats for cancer patients, and baby clothes for such children in Africa, or blankets for stray dogs and cats, as Corkhill points out.
She also cites a fascinating a Stichlinks/Cardiff University study that found that people who knitted together were more likely to feel calmer, happier, excited, useful, and better about themselves — and that even if they identified as an “introverted” person, attending knitting group gave them a feeling of belonging.
“That feeling then lends itself to the ability to trust enough to build relationships with others. There’s also a lot of wiggle room — for example, you can choose not to make eye contact, or talk much, and still be in the same space,” Corkhill writes.
People who knitted together were more likely to feel calmer, happier, excited, useful, and better about themselves.
This resonates with Kimmy Holm, who is approaching five years of sobriety and is a mother of two. She left her job as a teacher to become a full-time yarn dyer, setting up a studio for Spindle Warps Yarns in her home garage.
“It saved me in the early days of my sobriety,” she says. “As soon as I got home from work, I’d come through the door, sit down with my dog, and start knitting. Evenings were the worst for me, so I’d pick a pattern and just keep going.”
Unlike Park and myself, Holmes was a veteran knitter — in fact, unbeknownst to her at the time, it was already a coping mechanism for her as a child. When she came home to chaos, she’d find refuge in her room and with her knitting, focusing on the task at hand.
“When things got difficult, I’d cast something on my needles and just start going, because the repetitive nature of knitting was helpful to keep me busy. If my hands were busy, my mind was busy as well,” she says. But while she was using it as one of her coping skills, it didn’t provide that same immediate relief and mental and emotional numbing that drinking and using provides — that need to “check out” was still there.
“Knitting didn’t get rid of the shame I was carrying around with me for a long time. It makes you even more present.“ And sometimes, she’d come home drunk or high and have a “brilliant” idea, cast on, starting knitting… and always have to take it out the next morning.
“It saved me in the early days of my sobriety. As soon as I got home from work, I’d come through the door, sit down with my dog, and start knitting.”
When she first started attending AA meetings, it made the experience less terrifying.
“Before I started bringing my knitting with me, I was really nervous. I was scared of being vulnerable, of them calling on me,” she says. “Because I could look at my own knitting, but still talk and listen, I was able to pay attention to the stories women around me were sharing and even share my own experience.”
As Corkhill writes, when knitters encounter a problem, they seek to find a solution — and for all of us living that sober life, every day is about finding a solution to a life that doesn’t involve us checking out or acting out, but finding a positive way forward. It doesn’t hurt that restless hands that want to reach for something while watching TV or chatting with a friend can now create something fun and fabulous. Plus, planning future projects and working towards the goal of finishing the ones you’re working on at any given time can give you something to hang your hat (AHEM, knitted beanie) on during truly dark times and keep you moving forward.
And, finishing a project does give you that same reward-oriented hit you might be missing, and the feeling of pride when you’ve finished something you’ve worked hard on is one of those genuinely real feelings that you can’t get from anything else.